— Art in Common

Joseph Beuys, 7000 Oaks, 1982-present

7000 Oaks

An ecological turn in contemporary art has been very slow in coming. Even the novel seems to have gotten there faster than we have. But back in 1982, when Joseph Beuys initiated his most enduring work of social sculpture, he explained that his ongoing project was less about improving city life through a fun little plant-a-tree effort than about raising “ecological consciousness – rais[ing] it increasingly, in the course of the years to come, because we shall never stop planting.”

Beuys’s relationship to German history – the endless mythmaking, the recurrent use of fat and felt – seems to get most of the airtime these days; his environmentalism deserves much more attention.

The Dia foundation helped fund the original project of 7000 Oaks, for Documenta 7 in 1982. Beuys piled 7000 basalt stelae in a giant chevron outside the Fredericianum, placed one next to a newly planted oak tree, and left the other 6999 of them in a pile. It took five years for the remaining oaks to be planted, but it transformed Kassel, an ugly postwar city – the forgotten subtitle Beuys chose for the project was Stadtverwaldung statt Stadtverwaltung: city forestation rather than city administration. In Kassel Beuys wanted the citizens of the city to do the planting themselves, but here in New York, the Dia did the hard work; it’s not easy planting trees on 22nd Street, even with west Chelsea’s relaxed zoning laws. There are now two dozen stelae along the block, and only a few of them stand near actual oaks. You’ll also see two nice gingkos (I think of Dominique Perrault’s courtyard at the Bibliothèque nationale de France), a couple of lindens, even a pear tree.

There’s more than a little German Romanticism here; Schiller, in particular, comes to mind when you think about art as an improving force. (Schiller is hot again, of course; he was the guiding spirit behind Documenta 12.) But Beuys was no utopian. Art can change the world; but so can politics. Two years previously, in 1980, Beuys became one of the founding members of the West German Green Party, alongside Rudi Dutschke, Petra Kelly, and Joschka Fischer – the last of whom, two decades years later, would become vice-chancellor of a united Germany. Beuys even ran for the Bundestag and the European Parliament, though he never got a seat. No matter: he did at least design a fantastic poster.

7000 Oaks is on 22nd Street between 10th and 11th, home to the old Dia space.